Lots on sustainability – less on skills: Notes from the Labour conference

1 Oct 2022, 6:00

Promising noises were made at the Labour conference in Liverpool, but there are two big lessons the party must bear in mind if it is to truly lead on FE, writes Olly Newton

Despite rain and blustery winds in Liverpool, concerns over the government’s so-called ‘mini’ budget, the ongoing cost of living crisis, and news of the pound falling, nothing seemed to dampen the spirits at this year’s Labour Conference.

If anything, the mood felt optimistic, with a sense of conviction among the members and politicians we met that Labour is now finally in a place to offer a tangible, credible alternative.

Across multiple speeches and fringe discussions, Labour underlined their commitment to a green transition as the catalyst for change. Sir Keir Starmer set out his vision for a society that is “fairer, greener, more dynamic”, which redistributes opportunity and puts people, place, prosperity, and purpose at the heart of policy.

On education, we were delighted to hear Starmer highlight the importance of skills, such as creativity and resilience, as well as knowledge. We also heard acknowledgement of areas of the system that are working and the recognition that further education is now firmly on the political radar.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson outlined her vision for a future where children come first, where we value and nurture creativity, alongside academic success. She also pointed to Labour’s plans to turn the apprenticeship levy into a “growth and skills levy” with skills reforms to be overseen by a new body called Skills England. We look forward to seeing the details published shortly.

A missed opportunity on skills

Sadly, our joint fringe event, Skills for the Future, hosted alongside the National Foundation for Educational Research, was one of only a few skills events to take place at the conference.

Ours was one of only a few fringe events on skills

NFER’s Skills Imperative 2035 research pointed to new opportunities for job creation. Our young panellist, Jonas Andrew-Phillip, a member of Young People’s Action Group, pointed out that young people want an education that teaches them skills for life and work, and that celebrates their different talents.

We also heard from Alison McGovern, shadow minister for employment, who highlighted the importance of social infrastructure, such as childcare and healthcare to remove barriers for those unable to train or work.

Toby Perkins, shadow skills minister, outlined the importance of focusing apprenticeship opportunities on small and medium enterprises – something that Edge consistently calls for. Aside from these instances, however, the topic of skills felt like a missed opportunity.

How could Labour go further? 

For a party whose 1997 mantra, “Education. Education. Education”, still rings in our ears, Labour must now show real leadership.

Here are two big ways party could make real change:

First, we need a long-term strategy. Since 2010 we have had nine education secretaries. Four of those have been within the past year. The sector is tired of constant churn and a seeming lack of commitment. Nothing can be more important than investing in education. It is an investment in our human capital and future talent, so we need to see a long-term plan.

And second, learn from the past. The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) supported 16- to 18-year olds with the costs of post-16 education. Extensive evaluations found the scheme to have a positive impact on participation rates, but it was scrapped under austerity and we now have a discretionary, uneven and inconsistent form of funding to support full-time post-16 learners.

Labour should consider re-instating the scheme, following examples from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where the EMA is still in existence.

Meanwhile, the 14-19 Diplomas which were introduced in 2008 bear a striking resemblance to the new T levels. There are important lessons Labour must learn in order to grow the new programme, and also recognise its limits and the need for standalone vocational qualifications.

Labour now has a golden opportunity to rethink the role of education in favour of all young people. It’s an opportunity that can’t be missed.  

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